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Are the days of sprawling, buffet-style dining halls at college campuses nearing an end? In the traditional sense, the answer could be ‘yes’ as new technologies make inroads in food service with solutions that can help streamline food preparation, dining and cleanup.
Today’s dining halls have been drastically transformed by the pandemic, which has forced schools to rethink dining operations as they deal with significant staffing shortages, enforce social distancing measures in densely crowded spaces, and cope with supply chain constraints. These challenges are not only impacting students, who are experiencing long lines and extensive wait times, but also taking a toll on dining staff, who are dealing with the mounting pressure of serving large groups in a short period of time.
In addition, college students’ eating habits have drastically changed over the last 20 years, with more students looking for healthier food choices and more snacks throughout the day. A recent survey showed that one-tenth of students consider themselves semi-vegetarian (meaning, they only eat specific kinds of meat), while 13% say they follow a flexitarian diet, an increase of 6% from 2019.
Intelligent automation solutions that leverage data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies can easily simplify organizational decision-making at scale. With its innate ability to analyze data and make informed predictions about everything, including individual food preferences to portion sizes, intelligent automation can be a game changer as higher education institutions struggle with understaffed kitchens, costly spoilage and increasingly complex menus.
Students today are more than digital natives; they’re ‘digital integrators’ that can easily understand how combining technologies like robotics and advanced analytics can further advance their experiences. College students will be the next big group of consumers to experience and savor food-focused robotic innovations, if not directly on campus, then as part of their post-grad lives.
Benefits of Intelligent Automation
College dining halls have always faced massive logistical challenges when it comes to staffing kitchens, preparing the ingredients, serving meals and cleaning up. It’s even more challenging now amid labor shortages and rising operational costs.
One of the key benefits of intelligent automation is how it takes labor-intensive and repetitive tasks out of the human equation. The fry station, for example, is something that has historically been a physically demanding (and often dangerous) task that exposes kitchen workers to burns and other accidents given the limited space available. AI-powered robotics solutions like Miso Robotics’ Flippy, for instance, offer operators the opportunity to automate a dull, tedious task and redeploy staff to more customer-facing roles.
Intelligent automation can also take the guesswork out of food logistics. Using analytics to predict trends like daily food preferences and busy versus slow times, colleges can more precisely serve the right amount and type of food at just the right time. Instead of preparing large amounts of food in advance, placing it in steam trays and hoping everything is consumed, meals can be created on demand—limiting costly spoilage and cleanup. When the scale of operations is in the potentially tens of thousands of students, these costs can ramp up significantly.
In addition to college students looking for healthier food choices, they are also demanding more diversity in their diets than ever before. Even though it can be challenging and expensive for a dining hall to offer roasted chicken and pasta alongside sushi and acai bowls, intelligent automation solutions fused with advanced robotic vending machines could be an opportunity to diversify the menu with fully customizable meals created and dispensed on demand. This is something that companies like Chowbotics and Jamba are already exploring.
Increased safety is another important benefit. With a team of robots handling part of the cooking process and limiting human contact, there is less risk of cross-contamination or exposure to pathogens. Similarly, with more robots using visual recognition systems to scan and clean spills in a matter of seconds, there is less risk of slip and fall injuries in kitchens and dining halls.
Enabling New Front of House Experiences
The days of students perusing the buffet line and stacking their trays with an array of items aren’t over just yet; however, the dining hall experience could be changing. Some restaurants are already deploying roving robots to help serve hungry customers and there’s also self-service kiosks for ordering and payment. These solutions could become a reality at college dining halls sooner than you think.
Right now, most of these individual technology applications are already available for purchase as a product or service. The missing link is a way to seamlessly bring all of these pieces together. When it finally happens, a wholistic intelligent automation approach that gives food service operators and colleges a compelling new way to keep their students well fed will truly be a meal to remember.
Jake Brewer is Chief Strategy Officer at Miso Robotics, where he focuses on customer expansion, working closely with business and product development teams to meet the demands of a changing industry. Previous to joining Miso, he served as vice president of Restaurant Excellence at CKE Restaurants, where he led multiple functions such as restaurant innovation, ops commercialization, engineering, ops analytics and field training. He has also held roles leading teams at Kroger and Yum! Brands, including a time spent overseas running corporate restaurants for the KFC brand in London.